For Paul charism was “a concrete function or service that each Christian exercised on behalf of everyone in the community”.
The lexicographers Louw and Nida (1989) recommended we understand that the Son of Man came “in order to serve people”. This is of course to turn on its head centuries of thinking about the mission of the Son of Man.
The “office” of bishop itself is “in the strict sense of the term, a service” in the scriptures “significantly called diakonia or ministry” (Lumen gentium, 24).
Excerpt from La Croix June 11, 2020
Christine Schenk was inspired by Boff’s Church: Charism and Power (1992). Its impact came mainly from his sense that for Paul charism was “a concrete function or service that each Christian exercised on behalf of everyone in the community”.
Such a perception released charism and its power from the privileged grasp of hierarchical leaders. In other words, charism opened a path for women of the 21st century to assume roles of whatever order in the Church’s ministry and governance.
Here was a line of thinking that Christine could recognize as a “road map out of clericalism”.
The service theme
And here again our lines cross.
My own copy of Boff’s 1981 bestseller came my way in the English translation of 1985. This happened to be when I was preparing for publication my London thesis of 1976 on early Christian ministry.
At an important phase of this process two theological themes rubbed up against one another. One was the semantic value carried by the Greek term for “ministry”, diakonia, and the other was the role envisaged for charism in the Christian community.
The diakonia theme is indeed relevant here but its fuller story is for other times and places. We need to note merely that in modern languages this Greek word currently ranks as a term expressing an early Christian value of loving service after the manner of Jesus who “came to serve” (Mk 10:45).
A diakonic or service theme arising from this is deeply entrenched in contemporary thinking and talk about the Church. The theme found its possibly most startling expression in a brief instruction by Karl Barth in 1955 (Church Dogmatics IV-2). Namely, within the Church the term “office” is a “fatal word” and must be replaced by “service” (diakonia).
Bible translators have duly set out to correct historical misunderstandings of Mark 10:45. The lexicographers Louw and Nida (1989) recommended we understand that the Son of Man came “in order to serve people”. This is of course to turn on its head centuries of thinking about the mission of the Son of Man.
In 1602 the translators of the Geneva Bible had noted in the margin of Mark 10 that, to the contrary, pastors are “to serve after the manner of the Son of God”, who, in coming to “serve”, was identifying himself as “a Minister of his Father’s will.”
Nonetheless, within ten years of Barth’s instruction, experts from the ressourcement (return to the sources) school of theology ensured that the new service theme got exposure at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
There the “office” of bishop itself is “in the strict sense of the term, a service” in the scriptures “significantly called diakonia or ministry” (Lumen gentium, 24).
A volatile mix
Merging this line of thinking with the re-emergence of charism, we have a volatile mix. By the 1970s the modern view of early Christian charism – basically, “gift [of the Spirit]” – was wreaking havoc among the serried ministerial ranks inherited from medieval Christendom.
The ranks included three major orders comprising bishop, priest and deacon (including subdeacon) and four minor orders: lector, acolyte, exorcist and porter. In 1972 Paul VI simply demolished the minor orders and one major order (subdiaconate).
Ostensibly an initiative to foster “full and active participation in the liturgy by all the people” (although liturgical functions themselves were here expressly “reserved to men”), these measures were really directed at shoring up the exclusivity of the hierarchical office of priesthood.
Functions in the Church apart from this priesthood exercised by priest and bishop were henceforth merely “ministries” – with one exception: the diaconate.
This third rank of the historical “major orders” escaped Paul VI’s mayhem. As the name of this order itself would seem to imply, the diaconate is to embody values represented in the early Church by the Greek term for “service”: diakonia.
Towards a charismatic church
A versatile Greek word, diakonia is also a key term in what Paul intended to teach about the place of charisms in a Church (1 Cor 12, 4-11).
In general meaning “endowment” or “gift”, the Greek word charisma takes on a special value in the instruction Paul delivers at this point. The Corinthian Christians have encountered high moments of enlightenment and spiritual engagement. This they attributed to gifts from a divine source. Paul wants them not to make over much of such experiences. So he sketches out a ground plan for how the Corinthians should understand the interplay between the other world and this.
The Corinthians have been shown to be keenly aware of the origins of their intimacy with God and Jesus Christ. This has been through the preaching of Paul and his associates (1, 11-12; 3, 1-6). This foundational work has been done through the diakoniaor ministry of these men (3, 5).
The Corinthians are entirely familiar with Paul’s preferred terminology in this context (14 diakon– words in 2 Cor 3-6), as Greeks of that time would all have been. And Paul, deeply appreciating the gist and overtones of the words, draws on the terminology to much greater effect in the second correspondence that we have just alluded to.
At the point, accordingly, of explaining the play of the Spirit in the new, unique experience of Christian inner life and its outreach, Paul calls on diakoniaat 1 Cor 12, 4-6 (and note the Greek “both/and” in the following translation, which will not feature in any published translation of the bible):
there are different kinds of charisms (charismata), but the same Spirit:
both [kai] different kinds of ministries (diakoniai), but the same Lord,
and [kai] different kinds of activities (energemata), but the same God activating them…
Here Paul is distinguishing one set of endowments (“ministries”) from another (“activities”).
The ministries/diakoniai are the responsibility of the preachers, while activities/energemata are the responsibilities inherent in embodying and activating a range of other endowments that Paul goes on to exemplify.
In the second half of the 20th century biblical commentators, pastoral theologians, ecumenical gatherings, and church synods preferred to overlook this distinction, and to pile all the gifts indiscriminately into one basket.
One astonishing outcome from this is that any Christian holds a claim to ministry. The Church itself, when it acknowledges its “primal charism” becomes “essentially ministerial” and operates out of “a ministerial pleroma [fullness]” (cf. Thomas O’Meara, Theology of Ministry, 1999).
In his 1985 book, Gifts That Differ, David Power advocated this principle: “Ministeriality is a quality of the Church community, before it is a predicate of any of its members.”
Most of this line of thinking derived from the era in which Ernst Käsemann famously supported the equivalence of (1) “ministries/services/diakoniai” and (2) “gifts/charismata” (Essays, 1964).
Aware, it would seem, of such claims upon a Churchwide capacity for ministry – “every member ministry” – as a gift of the Spirit, Lumen gentium imposed an element of constraint upon the Spirit’s largesse. It characterized the gifts as “hierarchical and charismatic” (4).
But I have never seen on what grounds the Council Fathers admitted the notion of hierarchy to the Pauline discourse.
Lumen gentium does indeed reference 1 Corinthians 12, 4 (also Eph 4, 11-12; Gal 5, 22) and, in this connection, I reference my introduction to the Gift List above. There I drew attention to the Greek phrasing kai… kai, which I take as meaning “both … and” (as I was taught in high school), thus assuring the reader of a distinction between diakoniai and energemata.
To support this view of what Paul was teaching in this passage, I pause to draw on some succinct scholarship. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians in vol. 32 of The Anchor Yale Bible (2008) the late Joseph Fitzmyer maintained the distinction between them on grounds sketched above.
Thus, I am insisting that “service” is here not only an inadequate translation of diakonia, but that it leads to a distorted version of Paul’s intentions for the Church. Further, this is to signal that today’s translations of and commentary on Paul’s mission in terms of service are depriving churches of access to the kind of Church he was promoting.
This said, today’s readers of papal pronouncements may have noticed how frequently Pope Francis invokes “service” in his own homilies. During his morning homily on November 12, 2018 he said a bishop is to be “a humble and gentle servant”, adding that such thinking “goes back to the beginnings of the Church”.
In such reference Francis echoes – perhaps unwittingly – the teaching about “service” embedded in his predecessor’s first encyclical Deus Caritas est (God is Love).
Drawing on the story of the Seven in Acts 6, 1-6, Benedict XVI saw these men as “deacons” providing diakonia or “social service” to neglected members of the community. Thus, diakonia “became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.”
Back to the sources
The Greek diakon– terms involved here were simply hijacked in the 19th century to represent the kind of selfless and loving service provided to the needy by Evangelical Lutheran deaconesses.
By the early 20th century this view was being hailed as the rediscovery of an early Christian innovation and, with indecent haste, was incorporated into theological dictionaries and commentaries. Immediately, the innovation impacted upon the Church’s ordained ministries as well.
The 1990 “re-interpretation” of diakon– words exposed the egregious errors at play here. In no ancient Greek text, Christian or otherwise, did a diakon– term express notions of benevolent service.
Exclusively, the terms designated mandated activities of whatever kind, whether those of a household servant, a servant of the state, of the gods… or, in the new Christian culture, in the name of God and within the Church.
This is why Paul “glorifies” his diakonia of purveying the word of the gospel (Romans 11, 13). And this is why he draws upon the term in his protracted defense of his apostleship (2 Corinthians 3-6).
The German scholar, Anni Hentschel, researching the semantic values within the same broad range of literature, emphasized the significance for ministry of the same conclusion (2007; 2013).
When Paul identifies some charisms within the Church as diakonic (1 Corinthians 12, 5: NRSV “services”), he is writing of evangelizing activities such as he and his colleagues were involved in. He was explicitly distinguishing these from the “energies/energemeta” that graced every Christian (1 Corinthians 12, 6-11).
The “minister” of Corinth would react virulently against 20th-21st century attempts to turn his powerful summary of God’s action within communities at 1 Corinthians 12, 4-6 into a mandate upon all to exercise a ministerial gift.
Ministry as essentially a service to the Church or a service to the world is a distortion of the Scripture. Ministry as a responsibility to purvey the Word of God is a gift of the Spirit, and is to be maintained across the generations through the believers’ discernment and call of candidates, and their subsequent institution through the prayer of the Church.
John N. Collins is a world expert on the history and meaning of diakonia/ministry. A former Sacred Heart Missionary, he studied at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Rome) and the Ecole Biblique (Jerusalem) and has taught in universities in Australia. He is an author of several books.